Toronto City Hall – Its Architecture Launched Toronto into a Modern Era

2021 - The reflecting pool and TORONTO sign at City Hall
2021 – The reflecting pool and TORONTO sign at City Hall

Toronto City Hall is located at ‪100 Queen St W (at Bay St on the northwest corner) in downtown Toronto. It’s the headquarters for Canada’s largest city and houses Toronto’s municipal government.

Before New City Hall

The area that City Hall occupies was once known as “The Ward.” It was home to many newcomers, refugees and migrants to Toronto.

In 1947, taxpayers voted to expropriate the properties residing on Queen St W, between Bay St and Chestnut St (when it intersected with Queen St W). Some of the lands were already city-operated parking lots and home to the magnificent Registry of Deeds and Land Titles; however, several other buildings on the block needed to be demolished. They included Shea’s Hippodrome, the Manning Chambers building, hotels, restaurants and more. The budget for the new City Hall was $13 million.

The Initial Design

In 1955, three of Toronto’s leading architectural firms collaborated on a design for new City Hall. Commissioned by the City, Marani & Morris, Mathers & Haldenby and Shore & Moffat were all known for their conservative architectural style. Their proposal included a civic square with reflecting pools leading to a 3-storey U-shaped building with a tall, rectangular office tower behind.

Students Changed the Course of City Hall’s Architecture

When the plans for new City Hall were released, architecture students at the University of Toronto thought it to be “dull and uninteresting and indistinguishable from… insurance buildings.” Their opinions were printed in the student newspaper “The Varsity,” and the City’s daily newspapers picked up the story. When it came to the design of Toronto’s new City Hall, that changed everything.

The Design Competition

Professor of Architectural Design at the University of Toronto, Eric Arthur, together with his students, came up with the idea of an international design competition. Professor Arthur convinced City Council to carry out the competition. He then organized and became the chairman of the five-person architect judging panel. The jury included Sir William Holford, Charles Edward “Ned” Pratt, Ernesto Rogers, Eero Saarinen and Gordon Stephenson.

Mayor Nathan Phillips said, “An eminent jury will select the winner, and the City will accept its decision.” The first prize was $25,000 with $1 million in fees and a budget increased to $18 million.

With an April 1958 deadline, 510 entries were received from 42 countries. Design models were set up in the Horticultural Building at the CNE, and the materials took up the entire space. It took six days for the judges to narrow it down to eight finalists.

The winning design was by Viljo Revell and Associates from Helsinki, Finland. The announcement made front-page news. Its style was fresh, modern and futuristic.

1964 - Registry of Deeds and Land Titles Building being demolished during the construction of Toronto's new City Hall - the sod-turning for City Hall took place in front of the Registry building
1964 – Registry of Deeds and Land Titles Building being demolished during the construction of Toronto’s new City Hall – the sod-turning for City Hall took place in front of the Registry building (Canadian Architectural Archives, Panda Associates Fonds, PAN 61881-207)

Sod Turning & Construction

Mayor Nathan Phillips turned the first sod in November 1961 for City Hall, Toronto’s fourth building. In recognition of the work he had done advocating for the building of new City Hall, the square was named in his honour.

Construction began, and the project’s contractor was Anglin Norcross Ontario Limited. Assisting Viljo Revell was Toronto’s modernist architectural firm of John B Parkin Associates, with John C Parkin as the principal in charge during construction.

The Time Capsule

While most buildings have a cornerstone, new City Hall is definitely not a traditionally styled structure. A year into construction, a time capsule was sealed into a cylinder near the Council Chamber’s foundation column.

The capsule contains microfilm copies of three of the City’s newspapers showing the design competition announcement (dated September 26 and 27, 1958), copies of the top 5 designs, including the winner, microfilm copies of the Patriot and Farmer’s Monitor of 1834 (the year of the City’s incorporation), coins from 1833, 1844, 1899 and 1962 when Toronto’s City Halls were built, a map of the City, brochures, stamps and more.

The Passing of Viljo Revell

In 1964, Mr Revell passed away suddenly at the age of 54. He did not see the completion of Toronto’s new City Hall. One of Mr Revell’s associates, Heikki Castren and Company, and the Canadian partner firm John B Parkin Associates completed the project.

1965 - Grand opening night of Toronto City Hall
1965 – Grand opening night of Toronto City Hall (City of Toronto Archives, Series 1465, File 490, Item 1)

Opening Ceremonies

In September 1965, Governor-General George Vanier opened Toronto’s modern City Hall to a crowd of 14,000 people. City Council were escorted by the civic guard from Old City Hall across Bay St through to the ceremonies in Nathan Phillips Square. There was a ribbon-cutting, fireworks and flypasts by Royal Canadian Air Force jets.

During speeches, the sound of steel clanging could be heard as work was still being completed on City Hall. Dignitaries included Prime Minister Lester B Pearson, Premier John Robarts, Mayor Philip Givens and previous Mayor Nathan Phillips. There was also a tribute to architect Viljo Revell, whose wife sat in the front row.

Prime Minister Pearson said, “But as an old citizen of Toronto – I should say a former citizen – I must shed a tear for the old City Hall, which like the Armoury around the corner must become a sacrifice to progress.” While there were plans to tear down magnificent Old City Hall, thankfully, that changed.

1966 - Looking north towards Toronto City Hall from Queen St W, just west of Bay St
1966 – Looking north towards Toronto City Hall from Queen St W, just west of Bay St (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 2, ID 3)

Modernist Architecture

There are four main areas to contemporary Toronto City Hall. They include Nathan Phillips Square, the Podium, Council Chamber and the Towers.

Nathan Phillips Square is a large outdoor public square and hosts many activities and events. It features a reflecting pool in the warmer months, which turns into an ice-skating rink in the winter. The Freedom Arches over the pool contain a piece of the Berlin wall. There’s a sculpture called The Archer by Henry Moore, a theatre stage, the Peace Garden and the Sculpture Court.

The Podium is the two-storey structure and the public entryway into City Hall. Visitors enter through one of the three entrances on the Podium’s south side into a large rotunda that features teak elements and a Carrara marble floor. The foundation column in the centre of the rotunda supports the Council Chamber. The hollow concrete column measures 6 m or 19 ft across, and 1 m or 3 ft thick, and at its base is the Hall of Memory. The Office of the Mayor and Councilors Offices are located on the second floor.

Council Chamber, a low, broad dome upon an inverted reflection of itself, sits on a central column over the Podium. It has seating for 300 people. The dome weighs 4,000 tons and is supported by 23 pairs of V-shaped concrete struts on its windows exterior.

The curved Towers have windowless back walls clad in preclad ribbed concrete with marble inserts and inner stainless steel and glass curtain walls. The Towers frame the dome of the Council Chamber.

In the end, the cost of new Toronto City Hall was $31 million. The design received international acclaim and launched Toronto into a modern era. The complex received heritage status designation in 1976. The unique and striking style of the landmark is, to this day, as modern as it was more than 55 years ago.

2020 - The Archer statue, Podium, Council Chamber and Towers of City Hall at 100 Queen St W and Bay St
2020 – The Archer statue, Podium, Council Chamber and Towers of City Hall at 100 Queen St W and Bay St

Fast Facts About the Monumental Structure

  • City Hall and Nathan Phillips Square reside on 12.75 acres.
  • The Council Chambers dome is 46 m or 155 ft in diameter and 12 m or 40 ft from the floor to the highest point.
  • The East Tower is 27 floors and 99 m or 325 ft in height. The top floor features an observation deck; however, it is no longer open to the public.
  • The West Tower is 20 floors and 79 m or 260 ft in height.
  • Materials used during construction included 91,000 cubic yards of concrete, 9,000 tons of reinforcing steel, 94,000 square feet of glass, 170,000 square feet of precast marble, 20,000 tons of precast concrete panels, 306 km or 180 miles of electrical wire, 13.6 km or 8.5 miles of snow melting cables and 11,000 light fixtures.
  • There are facilities for over 2,600 civic staff with a total gross floor of nearly 817,000 square feet.
  • There are 1,100 offices and auxiliary rooms, 17 elevators and three levels of underground parking with a capacity for 2,400 vehicles.
  • The Reflecting Pool/Ice Rink is 55.5 m or 182 ft long by 30 m by 98 ft wide.
  • A ceremonial ramp on the east side of Nathan Phillips Square leads to the roof of the Podium.

An Interesting Article & Interview

In a 2010 Globe and Mail article, Lisa Rochon noted that the panel of judges initially rejected Revell’s scheme. Famed architect Eero Saarinen, one of the judges and a Finnish colleague of Viljo Revell, arrived in Toronto a day late for judging. He pulled Mr Revell’s submission from the pile of rejected entries and talked the other judges into his choice.

In the article, Lisa Rochon also interviewed Bengt Lundsten, an associate architect of Viljo Revell. Mr Lundsten, who was 82 at the time, was asked how the idea came about. He said, “The curved towers came up very quickly. There were three of us (Bengt Lundsten, Seppo Valjus and Heikki Castren) in the office together, as we always worked in the evening. Viljo was away. That first evening we had the idea of the curved towers. And the next morning, we presented this idea to Viljo, and he accepted it.” One of the architects later noticed the same kind of semi-circular shapes were in the shadow of a curved lamp. They made photographs of it.

1959 - Mayor Nathan Phillips
1959 – Mayor Nathan Phillips

Did You Know?

  • Nathan Phillips was Toronto’s first Jewish Mayor. Mr Phillips served on City Council for 36 years. Eight of those years were as Mayor, from 1955 to 1962.
  • Over 1.5 million people visit Nation Phillips Square each year.
  • In 1966, after a public outcry over the $100,000 cost of The Archer statue, Mayor Givens successfully completed a private funding campaign for the abstract artwork.
  • In the 1960s, visiting dignitaries would be driven up the ramp on the east side of Nathan Phillips Square to the roof of the Podium. There they would be dropped off right at Chamber Council. The Podium roof is now a garden.
  • There are permanent art installations inside Toronto City Hall. David Partridges’s Metropolis is on the main floor, also known as “The Wall of Nails” created using 100,000 common nails. On the second floor are Views to a City by Brian Kipping and John McKinnon made with copper and glass mosaic tiles as well as Anchestoral Figure with Spirit Helpers by Norval Morrisseau.
  • In 2017, in commemoration of Canada’s 22nd National Aboriginal Day, five Indigenous flags were installed near the southeast corner of Nathan Phillips Square. The flags honour the Mississaugas of the New Credit, Haudenosaunee (Six Nations of the Grand River Territory), Huron-Wendat, Métis Nation and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami.
  • Professor Eric Arthur was an architectural advocate saving many of Toronto’s beautiful old buildings. He wrote the book Toronto, No Mean City (later updated by Stephen A Otto).
  • Articles on Toronto’s previous City Hall structures including Old City Hall (third building), St Lawrence Market (which contains the second building) and St Lawrence Hall (the site of the first building).

Toronto City Hall Photos

1960's - Looking northwest from Bay St towards new City Hall construction
1960’s – Looking northwest from Bay St and Albert St towards new City Hall construction (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 1, ID 35)
2021 - The reflecting pool and TORONTO sign at City Hall
2021 – The reflecting pool and TORONTO sign at City Hall
2022 - Toronto City Hall viewed through the TORONTO sign
2022 – Toronto City Hall viewed through the TORONTO sign
1966 - Looking north towards Toronto City Hall from Queen St W, just west of Bay St
1966 – Looking north towards Toronto City Hall from Queen St W, just west of Bay St (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 2, ID 3)
1965 - Grand opening night of Toronto City Hall
1965 – Grand opening night of Toronto City Hall (City of Toronto Archives, Series 1465, File 490, Item 1)
2021 - The TORONTO sign and Freedom Arches over the reflecting pool in Nathan Phillips Square - in the background is Toronto City Hall at 100 Queen St W and Bay St
2021 – The TORONTO sign and Freedom Arches over the reflecting pool in Nathan Phillips Square – in the background is Toronto City Hall at 100 Queen St W and Bay St
Between 1980 to 1992 - Crowds gathered at Nathan Phillips Square with Toronto City Hall in the background
Between 1980 to 1992 – Crowds gathered at Nathan Phillips Square with Toronto City Hall in the background (City of Toronto Archives, Series 1465, File 417, Item 19)
Between 1980 to 1992 - Ice skating on the rink in Nathan Phillips Square at City Hall
Between 1980 to 1992 – Ice skating on the rink in Nathan Phillips Square at City Hall (City of Toronto Archives, Series 1465, File 41, Item 10)
1971 - Ramp leading to the top of the Podium at City Hall - today the roof of the Podium is a garden
1971 – Ramp leading to the top of the Podium at City Hall – today the roof of the Podium is a garden (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 552, Item 8)
1964 - Looking northwest towards the construction of new City Hall
1964 – Looking northwest towards the construction of new City Hall (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 6479)
1971 - Preclad ribbed concrete wall of a tower at City Hall
1971 – Preclad ribbed concrete wall of a tower at City Hall (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526, File 11, Item 6)
1968 - An aerial view looking north from Queen St W and Bay St towards Toronto's new and old City Halls
1968 – An aerial view looking north from Queen St W and Bay St towards Toronto’s new and old City Halls (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 2, ID 22)
1964 - An aerial view looking northwest during construction of Toronto City Hall
1964 – An aerial view looking northwest during construction of Toronto City Hall (Canadian Architectural Archives, City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1268, Item 460)
1964 - Registry of Deeds and Land Titles Building being demolished during the construction of Toronto's new City Hall - the sod-turning for City Hall took place in front of the Registry building
1964 – Registry of Deeds and Land Titles Building being demolished during the construction of Toronto’s new City Hall – the sod-turning for City Hall took place in front of the Registry building (Canadian Architectural Archives, Panda Associates Fonds, PAN 61881-207)
1964 - Construction of Council Chamber and the Towers at City Hall
1964 – Construction of Council Chamber and the Towers at City Hall (Canadian Architectural Archives, City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1268, Item 446)
1963 - Looking northwest during the early stages of City Hall construction
1963 – Looking northwest during the early stages of City Hall construction (Canadian Architectural Archives, City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1268, Item 380)
1960s - Looking northeast towards Old City Hall and the early construction of new City Hall
1960s – Looking northeast towards Old City Hall and the early construction of new City Hall (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1128, Series 380, Item 399)
1960 - Viljo Revell and Associates winning design model of Toronto's new City Hall
1960 – Viljo Revell and Associates winning design model of Toronto’s new City Hall (City of Toronto Archives, Series 1465, File 490, Item 1)
1958 - Models of the international design competition submissions set up in the Horticultural Building at the CNE
1958 – Models of the international design competition submissions set up in the Horticultural Building at the CNE (Canadian Architectural Archives, Panda Associates Fonds, PAN 58504-5)
1958 - From left to right - Professor Eric Arthur and the international design competition architect judges - Charles Edward "Ned" Pratt, Eero Saarinen, Ernesto Rogers, Sir William Holford and Gordon Stephenson
1958 – From left to right – Professor Eric Arthur and the international design competition architect judges – Charles Edward “Ned” Pratt, Eero Saarinen, Ernesto Rogers, Sir William Holford and Gordon Stephenson (Canadian Architectural Archives, Panda Associates Fonds, PAN 58504-2)
1955 - The first proposal for new City Hall and Civic Square by Marani & Morris, Mathers & Haldenby and Shore & Moffat - this was replaced with design competition-winning design by Viljo Revell and Associates from Finland
1955 – The first proposal for new City Hall and Civic Square by Marani & Morris, Mathers & Haldenby and Shore & Moffat – this was replaced with design competition-winning design by Viljo Revell and Associates from Finland (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1188, File 5, Item 5)
Between 1980 to 1998 - Looking east from the Canada Life Building towards new and old City Halls
Between 1980 to 1998 – Looking east from the Canada Life Building towards new and old City Halls (City of Toronto Archives, Series 1465, File 55, ID 6)
1929 - Looking east from the Canada Life Building towards Osgoode Hall, The Ward (future site of Toronto City Hall) and Old City Hall
1929 – Looking east from the Canada Life Building towards Osgoode Hall, The Ward (future site of Toronto City Hall) and Old City Hall (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 89)
1959 - Mayor Nathan Phillips
1959 – Mayor Nathan Phillips
2021 - Looking northeast towards the reflecting pool at Nathan Phillips Square and Old City Hall
2021 – Looking northeast towards the reflecting pool at Nathan Phillips Square and Old City Hall
1971 - Looking northeast from Nathan Phillips Square towards the reflecting pool, Old City Hall is in the background
1971 – Looking northeast from Nathan Phillips Square towards the reflecting pool, Old City Hall is in the background (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 552, Item 2)
1913 - Looking northeast from The Ward towards Old City Hall - today the reflecting pool/ice rink in Nathan Phillips Square stands in this area
1913 – Looking northeast from The Ward towards Old City Hall – today the reflecting pool/ice rink in Nathan Phillips Square stands in this area (City of Toronto Archives, Series 372, Sub Series 32, Item 187)
2021 - Looking southwest from Bay St and Albert St towards City Hall grounds - the former site of Shea's Hippodrome
2021 – Looking southwest from Bay St and Albert St towards City Hall grounds – the former site of Shea’s Hippodrome
1953 - Looking southwest from Bay St and Albert St at Shea's Hippodrome - today it's the site of City Hall
1953 – Looking southwest from Bay St and Albert St at Shea’s Hippodrome – today it’s the site of City Hall (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1128, Series 380, Item 283)
2021 - Looking northwest from Queen St W and Bay St towards Nathan Phillips Square, Toronto City Hall and Old City Hall
2021 – Looking northwest from Queen St W and Bay St towards Nathan Phillips Square, Toronto City Hall and Old City Hall
1927 - Looking northwest from Queen St W and Bay St during a visit from the Prince of Wales - today the northwest corner is home to Nathan Phillips Square at Toronto City Hall
1927 – Looking northwest from Queen St W and Bay St during a visit from the Prince of Wales – today the northwest corner is home to Nathan Phillips Square at Toronto City Hall (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1488, Series 1230, Item 1776)
2020 - The Archer statue, Podium, Council Chamber and Towers of City Hall at 100 Queen St W and Bay St
2020 – The Archer statue, Podium, Council Chamber and Towers of City Hall at 100 Queen St W and Bay St
1971 - Council Chamber at City Hall
1971 – Council Chamber at City Hall (City of Toronto Archives, Series 1465, File 41, Item 10)
1971 - The supporting column of Council Chamber located in the rotunda - notice the time capsule to the left of the column
1971 – The supporting column of Council Chamber located in the rotunda – notice the time capsule to the left of the column (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 552, Item 44)
1971 - The Carrara marble floor in the rotunda of City Hall
1971 – The Carrara marble floor in the rotunda of City Hall (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 552, Item 43)
2020 - Looking northeast towards Toronto City Hall at 100 Queen St W and Bay St
2020 – Looking northeast towards Toronto City Hall at 100 Queen St W and Bay St
1955 - The Registry of Deeds and Land Titles Building was located just southwest of today's Toronto City Hall's West Tower - it was demolished in 1964
1955 – The Registry of Deeds and Land Titles Building was located just southwest of today’s Toronto City Hall’s West Tower – it was demolished in 1964 (Toronto Public Library R-5673)
2020 - A pillar from The Registry of Deeds and Land Titles Building on display at the Guild Inn Estate
2020 – A pillar from The Registry of Deeds and Land Titles Building on display at the Guild Inn Estate
1955 - Looking northeast at Queen St W from Chestnut St when they intersected - today it's the southwest corner of Toronto City Hall grounds
1955 – Looking northeast at Queen St W from Chestnut St when they intersected – today it’s the southwest corner of Toronto City Hall grounds (Toronto Public Library R-1100)
1918 - Looking southeast from The Ward near Hagerman St, just west of Bay St towards Old City Hall - today this area is the site of Toronto City Hall
1918 – Looking southeast from The Ward near Hagerman St, just west of Bay St towards Old City Hall – today this area is the site of Toronto City Hall (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 1002)
SOURCE